He has a knighthood and the title "Sir Alex," but he once kicked a cleat so hard in a fit of anger that it bashed David Beckham in the face. He started life as an apprentice toolmaker and is retiring as the head of a global sports juggernaut. And he turned a rag-tag group of disgruntled soccer players into one of the most successful teams in the world, becoming arguably the best coach in all sports and an icon in Britain.
It's hard to imagine anyone replicating Sir Alex Ferguson's remarkable 26-year career as manager of Manchester United, which has included 13 Premier League championships, two Champions League titles and a top-three finish every year since the Premier League started in 1992. Off the field he did even more, transforming Man U from a regional doormat into a sports and economic powerhouse with 650 million fans in more than 100 countries and a market value of $3-billion.
So when the 71-year old Scotsman announced plans on Wednesday to retire as the club's manager at the end of the season, the news shook the soccer world and beyond, and sparked an outpouring of praise. British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed him as "a remarkable man in British football who has had an extraordinary, successful career."
Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, said on Twitter that Sir Alex's "achievements in the game place him without doubt as one of the 'greats.' "
The team has marketed itself relentlessly abroad over the years, going on annual tours in far-flung countries and pushing its brand relentlessly worldwide. Today the club pulls in more than $500-million annually from several sources of revenue, and manages to turn a profit despite rising costs. And its famous red-and-yellow logo can be found on T-shirts, jerseys, coffee mugs, caps and scarves in 130 countries. The club's global reach is so broad it signed a sponsorship deal last month with a Vietnamese bank that plans to offer Man U credit cards to the club's roughly 25 million Vietnamese fans.
The club and Sir Alex have been so successful that he was the subject of a recent Harvard University study on management styles. "Football management," he told the Harvard researchers, "in the end is all about the players. You think you are a better player than they are, and they think they are a better manager than you are."
Sir Alex, who was knighted in 1999, said he plans to remain with the club as an ambassador and a director after the team's last away game on May 19. (On Monday, Man U will celebrate its championship parade in Manchester, having sewn up the League title weeks ago.)
"The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about and one that I have not taken lightly," he said in a statement Wednesday. "It is the right time. It was important to me to leave an organization in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so."
Few would argue with that. He arrived at Manchester in 1986 after a string of success in the Scottish leagues, inheriting a group of players who hadn't won much and seemed more interested in drinking than playing. That didn't suit the driven Glaswegian, who grew up in a rough part of town and mixed his soccer-playing with apprenticing in a typewriter factory and running a pub. He promptly introduced a new training regimen, discipline code and youth program that ultimately developed future stars such as Ryan Giggs, Mr. Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes.
By 1992, Man U was a contender and part of the new English Premier League, a group of 20 clubs that broke away from the Football League. The EPL soon became the most popular league in the world and lured top players with exorbitant salaries. And Man U became the star attraction, as Sir Alex won a series of titles that bolstered its fan base and it coffers.
"Ferguson's luck was to become a great manager at the start of the Premier League," said David Boyle, a soccer writer and researcher based in London. "Manchester United has utterly been transformed."
Sir Alex hardly mellowed with success. He gained a reputation for criticizing referees and opposing coaches, players and the media. He refused to speak to any reporter from the BBC for seven years after the network broadcast a documentary alleging his son had exploited the family name to bolster his career as a player agent. The feud ended in 2011 after a meeting with senior BBC officials.
The fiery manager also became famous for his rants at players – which came to be called the "hairdryer treatment." He also never shied away from cutting loose even good players if he decided they no longer had the team mentality. And he kept winning and reinventing the club as other teams, such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, rose and fell. When American Malcolm Glazer, owner of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, took control of the club in 2005, much to the anger of many supporters, Sir Alex held firm and won still more championships.
A bronze of Sir Alex stands in front of the club's famous stadium, Old Trafford, and his name is emblazoned across one of the stands.
The question now is whether Sir Alex's successor can fill his shoes. Man U's shares fell more than 5 per cent on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday before recovering somewhat by the end of trading. Sir Alex's replacement is expected to be his friend and fellow Scot David Moyes, whose contract as manager of Everton ends this season.
Manchester United by the numbers
- 659 million: Number of fans worldwide
- 49 million: Average number of viewers per game
- 75,527: Average attendance per game in 2012-2013 season
- 16: Number of years Old Trafford stadium has been sold out
- 5 million: Number of Manchester United products sold last year
- 130: Number of countries where team’s products are available
- 38: Trophies won under Sir Alex Ferguson
- 7: Languages on team’s website
- 13: Number of English Premier League (EPL) titles won
- 0: Number of times team has finished out of the top three in EPL
- $250-million: Manchester United’s player payroll, compared to New York Yankees’ payroll of $230-million
- $3.1-billion: Estimated value of Manchester United, compared to the $2.3-billion estimated value of New York Yankees
Sources: Forbes, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission